Why did Moses write Genesis?
Ever since the early 19th century the Book of Genesis has been dogged by questions linked to the ‘war’ between religion and science. What does Genesis say about the age of the earth? How long were its ‘days’? What of Genesis and evolution?
But do we ever read it on its own terms, or worry that the questions we put to it are questions it was never intended to answer: questions which never entered Moses’s head and which would have produced only looks of blank puzzlement on the faces of his original readers?
Nor is it only literal six-day creationists who are guilty of failing to ask Moses what he was about. Those who attempt to ‘reconcile’ Genesis and science are often guilty of the same discourtesy. For example, can we seriously believe that when Moses spoke of ‘days’ it was geological eras that he had in mind? Too often the price we pay for trying to make Genesis intelligible to our own day is that we make him unintelligible to his own. It’s hard to imagine that he went to the trouble of writing these chapters, with all their stylistic brilliance, either to tell us the age of the earth or to demonstrate that the word of God is in perfect harmony with transient modern science. His priority, surely, was to speak a word to his own generation.
Speaking to his own generation
But what sort of word? One thing that stands out clearly is that the creation narrative of Genesis is a highly polemical document aimed at the creation-myths from which the ancients took their various world-views. It was a tract for the times (as, indeed, was the Epistle to the Romans), challenging early ideas of God, man and the world. The Israelites had met many of these ancient myths and their associated deities during their long bondage in Egypt and they would meet many more when they encountered the baalim, asherōth and other agricultural deities of Canaan. In Genesis One, these deities, in all their varieties, are rubbished. Over against polytheism with its countless gods, Genesis proclaims one God so great that he includes in himself all god-ness and so wise and powerful that he is sufficient, all by himself, to account not only for the earth but for the heavens, and for every force of nature. ‘In the beginning, God’: the one and only, whose prior existence accounts for every other form of existence. Before him there was nothing, not even time itself, or space, or gravity.
But then, not only is God the all-sufficient Creator: he has none of the capriciousness of the ethnic deities. He creates in an orderly way, not by one almighty act, but by a series of acts, gradually bringing the world to perfection until at last it is ready for the arrival of the first human pair. Then, when it is ready, he pauses and deliberates, takes counsel within himself, and resolves not only to create ‘man’ but to create them in his own image, and as such, as his Representative, to have dominion over creation. Thereupon he rests. The work of creating is finished, and the Maker, completely satisfied that the universe is exactly as he envisaged it, pronounces it, ‘Very good.’
Even here, however, Genesis is engaging with ancient mythology. In many of these ancient myths the gods had to rest because they were exhausted by their labours. There isn’t a hint of this in Genesis. God creates effortlessly. But some of the myths went a bit further, picturing the gods as creating humans with the express purpose that they would do the work and thus leave the gods free to enjoy the kind of leisure to which they would have liked to be accustomed. The poor humans, meanwhile, would never get a break at all.
Genesis paints a totally different picture. Here, God’s rest is not a means to recovery from his exertions, but a rest in which he relaxes to contemplate with satisfaction the work he has just completed; and far from demanding that humans must work so that he can enjoy his leisure, God institutes rest for ‘man’ as well, declaring the Seventh Day a holy and blessed day for the human race. The beauty of this is its sheer simplicity. The patterns of work and leisure are not a matter of some complicated formula; nor should we feel guilt over taking a rest. ‘It’s the Seventh Day. I must rest. I must not work.’ As simple as that.
Cutting the idols down to size
But as Genesis tells the story of God’s mighty creative acts it’s also cutting the favoured idols of the ancient world down to size. Hence its description of the heavenly bodies, one of the commonest objects of ancient (and even modern) pagan worship. Far from being deities, they are placed firmly among the ‘made things’ (Rom. 1.20). They exist only because God said, ‘Let there be lights … and it was so.’ In fact, Moses shows them so little respect that he doesn’t even mention them by name. He calls them simply ‘lights’ and he distinguishes them only by calling them respectively, ‘The big light’ and ‘the wee light’.
Not only so, but he assigns them their jobs. They are to give light to the earth. We know that physically the earth is a mere satellite of the sun, but in Genesis the earth, as the future habitat of man, is far the more important, and the sun’s job, along with the moon, is to serve it, separating day from night, and season from season.
The stars, beloved of astrologers and deified in pantheons, are treated equally unceremoniously. Enormous though they are, and numbering trillions, Genesis covers them in one brilliant throwaway line: ‘he made the stars, too’ (Gen. 1:16, KJV), as if, while he was at it, he might as well make a few stars for good measure.
The great sea creatures, and the great winged creatures, and the great mammals, and the whole reptile kingdom, are similarly put in their place. The nations might worship bulls and calves, and be in awe of mythical leviathans, but they belong not among the deities but among the subjects of man’s dominion.
A similar polemic lies behind the account of the separation of land and sea. In many of the mythologies these seismic events were the collateral damage from the titanic struggles of the monsters of the deep. In Genesis, they are achieved by divine fiat: spectacular, no doubt, in the forces they unleashed and the upheavals they generated, but the Great Conductor didn’t break sweat.
And so the polemic continues. There is no room here in Genesis for the idea of the universe as an accident or for the idea that something was always there. Until God spoke there was nothing, absolutely nothing at all, but when he spoke, word after word, separated by we know not how many aeons, the universe came into being and became a thing of beauty, not because it contained within itself some great generative and organising principle, but because of the initiative of One who combined in himself, and in sublime perfection, the qualities of the mathematician, the craftsman and the artist.
Nor does the mythological portrayal of ‘man’ escape Moses’s censure. In the myths, ‘man’ existed to provide food for the gods. In Genesis, God provides food for ‘man’: all the fruit of the earth, in its astonishing abundance, was theirs; and whereas the myths portrayed ‘man’ as a thing of no consequence, a mere underling to the stars, in Genesis they are not only the apex of creation but a unique species, made in the image of God. They are not made according to some created template or some random genome (‘according to his kind’) but according to a template which had existed from all eternity: God himself. In no other form, least of all in a sculpted one, can we see the likeness of deity. Only here. And although this image was marred by the Fall, and keeps on being further marred by oppression on the one hand and dissoluteness on the other, yet among all the vicissitudes of our individual and collective history we retain this unique dignity, that we are but a little lower than Elohim (‘God’, Ps. 8.5)). As such we are placed here, in a world attuned to our cognitive faculties, under orders to explore it and to push back the frontiers of knowledge, and directed to harness the resources of our planet for the glory of God and the well-being of our co-inhabitants.
But these early chapters of Genesis are not only asking us to look upwards to the Creator and from him to the world around us. They’re also looking forward, preparing us for the story that follows. Magnificent though they are, they’re a mere vestibule to the story of Abraham and the patriarchs, the Exodus, the creation of Israel, and the advent of the Messiah. Primaeval history is not the Bible’s priority, and neither is cosmology. The very balance of the narrative tells us this. The ages it took to arrange the stars in their courses and to create the vast mountain ranges, mighty rivers and lush rain-forests which give our earth its character, are all covered in a few summary lines, because Genesis is in a rush to get to Abraham; and then it slows down, leaving cosmology to cosmologists while patiently telling the story of the people from whom Jesus came, until at last we come to himself and the painful, frame-by-frame narrative of the cross.
But the vestibule is not just a chronicle of a few key facts. It also introduces the great theological realities without which the rest of the Bible would make no sense: the Fall; the bewildered, terrified helplessness of humanity; the avalanche of sin and violence which engulfs Adam’s family until eventually the human race finds itself overwhelmed in the same sort of watery chaos as existed before God separated land and sea.
At the same time Genesis highlights the fact that no reliance can be placed on human wisdom, least of all on the wisdom of the ancients. The folly of Adam, the absurdity of the Tower of Babel, and the moral frailty of even a man like Noah, are all brutally exposed; and while credit is given (Genesis 4.19 – 22) to the inventiveness of those descendants of Cain who introduced agriculture, craftsmanship, and music and song, it is made absolutely clear that neither enterprise nor the arts could prevent the world descending into anarchy and violence. God has to intervene, because only the One who made the world can remake it.
And so, suddenly, having covered the story of millions of years in a mere eleven chapters, we are at Abraham, and at the Promise (Genesis 22.18); and then, equally suddenly (on God’s time-scale), we are at Bethlehem and the Virgin Birth: the great symbol of the inability of the children of Adam to produce their own Saviour.